Every time we Google something or buy a pair of shoes online, we’re creating valuable data. And people who know how to analyze that data are highly employable right now. As computing enters every part of life, high school teachers are beginning to see it as their duty to prepare students for this changing world.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has teamed up with UCLA to develop an introduction to data science course that meets University of California and California State University application requirements. Students use a blend of statistics and computer science to analyze data sets they’ve either collected or found.
“They’re learning how to think critically with data,” said Suyen Machado, who helped write the course curriculum and coordinates the program that has spread to 30 schools in six districts.
In one project, students look at 15,000 data points from a Centers for Disease Control survey on teen health. The survey asked teens about bullying, how much soda they drink and whether they wear seat belts. Data science students look for patterns in the data and try to draw conclusions from what they find there.
They ask questions about the data, analyze it and interpret it. If their initial question isn’t answered, or they have new ones, they return to the data and ask a new set of questions. The class discusses the ethical implication of data collection, how surveys can be skewed and how different visualizations tell particular stories. Teachers say engagement with the course is much higher than more traditionally taught math classes because it feels relevant to students.
Machado particularly remembers one senior who hadn’t passed any of her high school math classes. She was far behind in credits, with no chance of graduating, but she loved data science.
“She was so captivated by the course. It was the first time she would come to school almost every day because she didn’t want to miss [Introduction to Data Science],” Machado said. “She knew she wasn’t going to graduate, but she still came to school because she was really engaged in the course."
While the new take on math is popular with students, some teachers are more wary of change.
“Because it’s not well known, people don’t really understand it,” Machado explained.
But, she sees the opposite as well. Some teachers want to try something new and are excited to offer a different math pathway for students.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an easy class,” said Monica Casillas, who taught the data science class for three years. “It’s very rigorous.”
Casillas also taught an Advanced Placement Statistics class, so she has a good comparison point.
She said the two classes are very different. Rather than focusing on paper and pencil computations, the emphasis in data science is on mathematical reasoning, asking good questions and making inferences.
“Seeing my kids being excited about it, you know as a teacher, it just gets you excited,” Casillas said. And she says the skills her students take out of the class are useful as they analyze the news and progress in their education.